The “Pax Romana” (“Roman Peace”) refers to a period between the 1st and 2nd century AD, when the force of Roman arms subdued most everyone who stood against it. Historians speak in terms of Great Empire. For most, the mountains of dead become cold statistics, themselves dead and bereft of human experience. There is no quantifying the mass of human misery left in the wake of such a regime. The conquered peoples of the time, who would tell you a different tale. Sometime circa 84AD, Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland, described the Pax Romana: “They make a desert and call it peace“.
In the Roman imagination, Britain was a faraway and exotic place, a misty, forested land inhabited by fierce, blue painted warriors.
Caesar himself invaded the place in 55BC and again in 54 with little to show for it. 100 years later, the Roman empire stretched from the beaches of modern-day Normandy to Asia, from the Sahara desert to the northern Rhineland. In 9AD, the destruction of three legions led by Publius Quinctilius Varus in the Teutoberg forest served as a sharp reminder. That was about as much as even the Roman empire, could handle.
Militarily, there was no reason to attack the British home isles. The channel itself formed as fine a protector of the western flank, as could be hoped for.
Even so, the assassination of the mad emperor Caligula in 41 and the ascension to the Royal Purple of a minor member of the Claudian family, led to strong resistance in the Roman senate. If he was to survive, emperor Claudius had to prove himself worthy. The Roman culture of antiquity revered nothing so much as military conquest and what could be better, than the glorious subjugation of Britannia. So it was, Claudius set about to invade Britain in the year 43.
20,000 citizen-legionaries and another 20,000 auxiliaries recruited from the wild fringes of the empire, had their work cut out subjugating the iron age hill fortifications, of the British interior. Wales would prove all but impenetrable behind the anti-Roman front erected by the Welsh tribes following Prince Caratacus.
Before achieving the defeat of the west, the invader had to contend with a force which came closer than any other, to throwing the Italians out of the place, altogether. A threat in the person of Queen Boudicca, of the Iceni people.
Boudicca (a.k.a. Boudica, Boudicea, Boadicea, Buddug) reigned over the Iceni tribe of East Anglia, co-ruler with her husband, Prasutagus. A nominally independent kingdom and ally of the Romans, King Prasutagus believed himself the protector of his people when he willed the kingdom jointly, to his two daughters and to the Roman emperor. Prasutagus lived a long and prosperous life but, when he died, that all changed.
With the arrogance of unchecked and unlimited power, emperor Nero moved to take what was His. Prasutagus’ will was ignored and his kingdom annexed and all his property, forfeit. Financiers from the Roman statesman Seneca to emperor Nero himself called in their loans but worst of all, Queen Boudicca was publicly flogged, her two daughters, raped.
Apoplectic with rage and determined to avenge her family, Boudicca was not a woman to be trifled with. She led the Iceni, the Trinovantes and others among the Celtic, pre-Roman peoples of Britain, in a full-scale, bloody revolt.
Emperor Claudius himself had once overseen the invasion of Camulodunum in what is now Colchester, in Essex. Then a Roman province and home to the only classical-style temple in Britain, in British eyes the thing was arx aeternae dominationis (“stronghold of everlasting domination”).
For the Celtic peoples, the hour of payback had arrived. For the seizure of lands to provide estates for Roman veterans to their own forced labor in building the Temple of Claudius to the sudden recall of loans and destruction of estates and properties. The Roman historian Tacitus writes of the last stand at the Temple of Claudius: “In the attack everything was broken down and burnt. The temple where the soldiers had congregated was besieged for two days and then sacked“.
Everything that could be taken up was smashed, the population slaughtered and the city burnt to the ground. A relief army rushing to the assistance of Camulodunum was itself destroyed, before ever reaching the town.
The archaeological record backs it all up. The “Boudican destruction layer” forms a thick deposit of ash, human bones, shattered buildings, smashed pottery, furniture and glasswork at Camulodunum, Verulamium (St Albans) and Londinium (London). An estimated 70,000-80,000 Romans and British citizens were slaughtered and many tortured, within the smoking ruins of the three cities.
Nero himself contemplated removing his entire force from the British home islands as Governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus gathered his forces to strike back.
Sometime in 60 or 61, the precise date is unknown and this one is as good as any, the decisive battle for British if not western history was fought between Celtic followers of the warrior queen Boudicca, and the most powerful military on the planet.
Outnumbered 23 to 1, the 10,000 strong Roman legion was battle hardened, well-equipped and disciplined, facing off against a mob of nearly a quarter-million unarmored, poorly disciplined individuals.
Suetonius chose the ground carefully for the fight we remember today, as the battle of Watling Street. Backed into a narrow gorge with thick forests protecting his sides, Suetonius enemy was made to approach across an open plain, narrowing in the front so as to nullify numerical advantage. Like the Germanic chieftains Boiorix of the Cimbri and Ariovistus of the Suebi before their own battles against Gaius Marius and Julius Caesar, Boudicca’s forces arrayed their wagons in a tight circle to the rear, the better for family to watch what was about to happen. It was a deadly trap they had laid for themselves, should things go wrong.
What must it look like, when 230,000 screaming warriors charge a fixed force of 10,000 disciplined soldiers. First came the Pila, the Roman javelins tearing into the tightly packed front, of the adversary. Then the Legion advanced, shields out front with the short swords, the long swords and farm implements of the Celts unable to move in the crush of humanity. The wedge formation advanced unbroken, slaughtering all who came before it as a scythe before the grass. The turning and the attempt to flee, only to be boxed in by their own tightly packed crescent formed wagon train.
80,000 of Boudicca’s men lay dead before the slaughter was ended, against 400 dead Romans. Queen Boudicca poisoned herself according to Tacitus, Cassius Dio claims she became ill.
Romans never did subdue the wild tribes to the north, the Scots, the Picts and the Scoti (modern Irish). By 122, Hadrian had begun construction on a wall.
Boudicca’s gone now but her name lives on. On this day in 1972, the cruise ship Royal Viking Sky launched from drydock at the Wärtsilä Hietalahti shipyard in Helsinki, Finland. In 2005, the thousand passenger liner was sold to Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines and renamed MV Boudicca. She remains active, to this day.